Chinese coal mines in BC: Missing the forest for the trees

Chinese coal mines in BC: Missing the forest for the trees

The story of a Chinese company in BC hiring Chinese workers has received a lot of attention. Much of the attention has focused on the company’s decision to game the temporary worker system in order to avoid hiring “Canadian” workers. Many of the objections are made on nationalistic grounds, “OMG, THEY”RE TAKING CANADIAN JOBS”, which then leads down the path of racist anti-Chinese sentiment. This Tyee article (disclaimer: I am a Tyee monthly funder, but obviously have no editorial input!) summarizes the issues involved very well. Recent changes to Canada’s immigration laws make this kind of hiring logical, because it is now okay to pay temporary workers with little/no bargaining power 15% less than you would pay locals. Of course you have to document that there were no qualified locals, but as this particular incident indicates, there’s little/no actual enforcement unless a fuss is made.

I find temporary worker programs to be problematic because they provide no path to citizenship, no permanence for the people who want it, and cause ugly divisions in the community. If you think there are not enough “workers” in your community, open your borders, let them in and pay well, you’d be surprised.

I wanted to highlight two obvious issues that to my mind are as important:

  1. Carbon Bomb. It’s a coal mine! How many people in BC, which preens gloriously on its carbon tax, are aware that coal is BC’s Number One export? What is the point of having a carbon tax for consumers when producers get to make money off that carbon for free? Whether the coal is burned in BC, or in China, it causes the same damage. Whether the coal is used to generate power, or to make steel, it puts out the same amount of carbon dioxide. Whether the mine uses Chinese workers or locals, it produces the same climate changing emissions. So, why instead of making coal producers pay the real costs of their product, are we enabling them to evade carbon taxes, royalties, and save even more money by reducing wages? Also, coal mining is not employment intensive, as countless other people have pointed out. So it’s not really about the jobs either. Kevin Washbrook of StopCoal made this point as well in the Tyee article I linked to earlier.
  2. Does this mine have right to be there? The West Moberley First Nation, part of a Treaty 8 band is opposed to the project on its land. That should be the end of the story. The state of Canada has responsibilities as a settler entity to obtain free, prior and informed consent on development from the people it colonized. The US is a bit more honest in this regard as it regards the colonization as a thing of the past and gives its indigenous peoples little/no rights. Canada’s different, the indigenous here have specific standing because of Canada’s existing colonial links and Canadian governments and courts routinely confirm this standing. The BC government is currently negotiating treaties with many First Nations communities including the West Moberley First Nation.

We’re trying to set up a climate and environment disturbing, cost and tax evading coal mine on land that belongs to someone else using easily exploited temporary workers we can be racist towards.


US CO2 Emissions down due to Natural Gas. GHG Emissions? Not so fast!

US CO2 Emissions down due to Natural Gas. GHG Emissions? Not so fast!

Let the celebrations begin!!

In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal

via Associated Press.

Coal is evil, for many reasons, natural gas is less evil, but don’t tout its climate benefits, it has none.

While natural gas is a much cleaner burning fuel, and its mining is less harmful than coal’s, there’s a big variable that doesn’t get discussed very often in the media, its leakage during mining, processing and transport. Methane is 25 times more potent (pdf) than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. So, it would seem that knowing how much escapes into the atmosphere would be a fairly important variable.

It is very easy to estimate CO2 emissions from burning natural gas, it is much more difficult to measure fugitive and diffuse emissions from natural gas, fracking or otherwise. After all, the emissions occur at industrial sites controlled by drilling companies who have no interest in releasing that data. Also, it is site, and technique dependent. A conscientious driller may be able to avoid most leaks, but where’s the motivation? Natural gas is very abundant, and the price it is selling at demands high volume production and low margins. No need to plug the leaks, just the whole thing flow.

The scientific community and environmental community is well aware that comparing natural gas and coal is not as simple as looking at CO2 emissions.  Methane and CO2 also have different lifetimes in the atmosphere, with methane being shorter lived, but forcing more intensely. The short-term and long term prognoses are therefore very different. Three separate papers (see references) have looked at this issue and concluded that natural gas is no panacea.  Alvarez et al still espouses natural gas as a bridge fuel, but Howarth et al and Wigley are less optimistic.

Here’s a nice image from Wigley’s paper that shows the consequences of switching from coal to natural gas once all factors are taken into account:

It’s all about Methane leakage

Note that under all scenarios, even under zero leakage, natural gas use actually causes an increase in short-medium term climate forcing. Why? Dirty burning coal also puts out enough sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to create fine particles that reflect incoming sunlight and cancel out some warming. It takes until 2050 at least for climate forcing from natural gas to start showing benefits over coal. Even then, the benefits are not sufficient to fight climate change. Wigley estimates that the change is 0.1°C “out to at least 2100”, big whoop.

So, what exactly might the leakage rate be? Industry and the US Environmental Protection Agency estimate it at 2% or less. When Pétron et al. went around measuring it around Denver, they measured it at 4%, with pretty high uncertainty, which makes natural gas fairly useless for fighting climate change.

It is troubling that people treat this transition to natural gas so cavalierly. One doesn’t even need to look at all the problems arising from fracking for natural gas use to be no panacea. There is some evidence that natural gas investment is also driving out wind and solar energy investment. Here in BC, our wonderful Premier Christy Clark declared that natural gas was clean energy as far as the government’s policy framework was concerned. The opposition, and government-in-waiting NDP also thinks natural gas is clean. This is disturbing, and very shortsighted.

What I say is not new, Joe Romm put it well “Natural Gas is a bridge to nowhere“, unless a very high carbon price is established (I don’t see one today, do you?).


  1. Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. “Methane and the Greenhouse-gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations.” Climatic Change 106, no. 4 (April 12, 2011): 679–690.
  2. Wigley, Tom. “Coal to Gas: The Influence of Methane Leakage.” Climatic Change 108, no. 3 (2011): 601–608.
  3. Alvarez, Ramón A., Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, William L. Chameides, and Steven P. Hamburg. “Greater Focus Needed on Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Infrastructure.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 9, 2012).
  4. Pétron, Gabrielle, Gregory Frost, Benjamin R. Miller, Adam I. Hirsch, Stephen A. Montzka, Anna Karion, Michael Trainer, et al. “Hydrocarbon emissions characterization in the Colorado Front Range: A pilot study.” Journal of Geophysical Research 117, no. D4 (February 21, 2012): D04304.

Bridge to Nowhere featured image courtesy GarlandCannon Flickr Photostream used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Canada – No new coal plants?

For a minute I thought the pain from playing volleyball last night, plus opening my computer up sleepily at 5:45 in the morning before catching an early bus to work had me hallucinating, but yes, the Canadian federal government actually wants to impose a moratorium on the construction of new coal fired power plants unless they include sequestration (which to me means no new power plants).

The federal government is planning sweeping new climate-change regulations for Canada's electricity sector that will phase out traditional coal-fired power

Any new coal plants will have to include highly expensive – and unproven – technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions and inject it underground for permanent storage, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said in an interview yesterday.

Ottawa also plans to impose absolute emission caps on utilities' existing coal-fired power plants and establish a market-based system to allow them to buy credits to meet those targets, Mr. Prentice said.

via Ottawa takes aim at coal power.

I have a certain distrust for this government, so details are crucial. The right things are being said:

  1. All new plants will need sequestration
  2. A cap and trade to deal with existing coal fired power plants
  3. Phase out of facilities after “fully amortized life” – Not clear on exactly what that means
  4. 90% Emissions free power sector by 2025

As the article points out, Canada relies on coal much less than a lot of other countries, only 18% of current emissions are from coal, as opposed to the US, where about 40% is from coal.

So, time to celebrate? Not exactly. Canada’s latest release of 2007 data indicates horrendous performance.

Canada 2007 GHG Inventory

Overall, total increase was 6 Megatonnes from 2004 to 2007. But the increases from the Tar Sands were nearly 16 Mt, meaning most of Canada’s other sectors saw decreases, thanks to a number of mild winters and greater efficiency.

Clearly, this performance is going to continue until the Tar Sands are included in any CO2 reduction strategies, whatever we do, or don’t do with the coal will have a little bit of impact, but will definitely not help Canada achieve any of its short or long term goals.

So, one cheer for this announcement. I suspect that the administration needs something to take to meetings, and is hoping that a coal moratorium will distract people from the biggest culprits, the Tar Sands and our insanely high per capita GHG footprint. A “no new coal” moratorium would be a huge deal in the States, and off the charts in China or India as far as reducing emissions go. But Canada, not bad, but definitely not good enough!

The Tar Sands will only be stopped when the US steps up to the plate and gets its Cap and Trade going.

Goodbye Conventional Coal, for now.

In a move that signals the start of the our clean energy future, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board EAB ruled today EPA had no valid reason for refusing to limit from new coal-fired power plants the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. The decision means that all new and proposed coal plants nationwide must go back and address their carbon dioxide emissions.

via Sierra Club: Email – Ruling: Coal Plants Must Limit CO2

This is huuuuuuuuuuge.